First published in August 23, 2008 Armenian Reporter and since slightly updated.
Chronology: Georgian-Ossetian conflict
As the Czarist Empire collapses, Ossetians – who are ethnic cousins of Persians and are mostly Orthodox Christians – rise up against Georgian rule. Thousands are killed in clashes before Georgia is occupied by the Red Army in 1921.
Most majority-Ossetian areas south of the Greater Caucasus Mountains become the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast (Province) within Soviet Georgia. Dissent, including
ethnic grievances, are kept tightly in check.
As Soviet Union collapses, Ossetians demand greater rights. Georgia’s newly elected nationalist leadership of Zviad Gamsakhurdia instead abolishes the autonomy altogether and sends armed Georgian units into the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, resulting in atrocities. Georgian forces are eventually forced out of Tskhinvali and Georgia agrees to a Russian-mediated cease-fire, acquiescing to de-facto loss of control over much of South Ossetia.
With the cease-fire patrolled by a small Russian peacekeeping contingent and the Georgian government bankrupt, relative normalcy returns to Ossetian-Georgian relations.
In the mid-1990s, Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze meets his South Ossetian counterpart and negotiates a partial return of refugees. Ethnic Ossetians return to live and work in Georgian towns and Georgians return to live and work Tskhinvali. A large black market springs up at a Georgian village near Tskhinvali.
Mikhail Saakashvili is elected president of Georgia after overthrowing Mr. Shevardnadze through street protests and pledges to return control over South Ossetia and another breakaway former Georgian autonomy, Abkhazia.
With help from the U.S. and Europe, Mr. Saakashvili begins to build up the Georgian army – with the country’s military budget reaching $1 billion in 2007 – and increases pressure on both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including fighting around Tskhinvali in summer 2004 involving mortars that claimed dozens of lives.
At the same time, Georgia seeks Western support and makes joining NATO one of its major foreign policy goals and provides one of the largest contingents in support of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Russia raises its profile in the long-neglected breakaway republics, extending Russian citizenship to their residents, and serving as their only conduit to the outside world. Russian leaders say they view NATO expansion into Georgia and, another former Soviet republic, Ukraine, as a hostile act.
Through spring 2008, a number of incidents take place in Abkhazia, where Georgia launched unmanned spy planes, which Abkhaz begin to shoot down with Russian help.
By summer 2008, Georgia switches its attention back to South Ossetia.
Run-up to war
June 14 – For the first time in four years, Georgian forces launch mortar fire on Tskhinvali. One person is killed and several are wounded. Russian and European mediators are unable to determine who was to blame for the incident.
June 24 – The Georgian parliament approves the government’s decision to reverse an earlier military spending cut and increases its military budget back to near the
2007 level of about $1 billion.
July 3–4 – More bombings and exchanges of fire occur, including with the use of mortars and grenade launchers, with several more people reported killed in and around Tskhinvali. The sides blame each other. Georgians force Russian peacekeepers from one of the heights near Tskhinvali. Ossetians lambast Russian peacekeepers for failing to maintain peace and begin to mobilize forces and establish defense fortifications.
July 9 – Russia acknowledges its combat plane flew over Georgia, as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Tbilisi and tells Georgians that the United States “always fights for [its] friends.”
August 1–2 – More Georgian mortar shelling of Tskhinvali leaves 6 dead and 21 wounded; the Georgian government member in charge of South Ossetia / Abkhazia policy
arrives in Tskhinvali on August 2 for a meeting with South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity. Following that meeting, Ossetians begin largescale evacuation of women and children from Tskhinvali to Russia.
August 7 – Georgia’s artillery, including large-caliber howitzers and multiple-launch rocket systems, begin to take combat positions around Tskhinvali. After intense shelling throughout the day, Mr. Saakashvili in an evening televised addresses promises to cease fire as Georgian armored and mechanized units begin to move towards South Ossetia.
How the “4-day” Ossetian war unfolded
Some of the main developments
Friday, August 8
00:00 – Shortly before midnight Georgia’s Gen. Mamuka Kurashvili calls commander of 500 Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia Gen. Marat Kulahmetov to tell him that Tbilisi is about to begin an operation to “restore constitutional order” in South Ossetia and urges his forces to stay out of fighting.
At this time, Georgian artillery opens massive fire on the town of Tskhinvali and other areas of South Ossetia; howitzers acquired in Ukraine and Czech Repubic, and Lar-160Multiple-Launch Rocket Systems made in Israel continue shelling Tskhinvali through the morning.
01:00 – Georgian forces advance north of Tskhinvali through South Ossetia’s ethnic Georgian enclaves in an effort to interdict the Roki tunnel – the area’s only land connection with Russia. The move is anticipated by Ossetians, who deploy the bulk of their force to protect the Roki tunnel and adjacent Java district, leaving their capital of Tskhinvali sparsely defended.
[By August 9–10 this Georgian force was surrounded and largely destroyed by Russian and Ossetian forces; days later Georgian leaders admitted they were “too late” in reaching the Roki tunnel and that they underestimated Ossetian and Russian deployments in that area.]
02:00 – Georgian police spokesperson tells journalists that “Georgian [ground] attack is underway, clashes are taking place outside Tskhinvali”; Ossetians confirm engaging Georgian forces, who are using dozens of tanks and armored vehicles supplied by Ukraine and Turkey and equipped with nightvision equipment supplied by the U.S., Israel, and Ukraine. The Georgians begin to overwhelm a smaller and lightly armed Ossetian self-defense.
02:30 – Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried tells journalists in Washington: “We’re urging the Georgians to exercise restraint, but it seems the South Ossetians are the provocative party.” Mr. Fried adds that he sees no Russian involvement so far.
03:15 – In televised remarks, the Georgian government’s main war spokesperson Timur Yakobashvili urges Ossetians to surrender: “Tskhinvali is surrounded…. Illegal armed formations need to surrender.” He reports that Georgian forces have taken five Ossetian villages.
03:30 – The Ossetian leadership appeals for immediate Russian military help. Around this time, first Russian forces begin to enter South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel and build up near Java. By mid-day August 8, there were up to 2,000 Russian mechanized infantry on the ground in support of several thousand Ossetian self-defense who were facing up to 10,000 Georgian forces.
05:00 – Russia calls for an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting to protest Georgia’s actions, which Russia’s Foreign Ministry calls a “massive and treacherous attack.” The council convenes by 07:00 (11 p.m. eST), but amid disagreements between Russia and the U.S., the Security Council remains deadlocked and after days of arguments takes no position on the conflict.
06:00 – Georgian forces enter the Tskhinvali town center, after bypassing Russian peacekeeping forces. Georgia’s Israeli-upgraded aircraft attacks targets in South Ossetia, including in and near Java.
10:00 – Shortly after attending the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tells media that Georgia’s actions “will have a response.” At about the same time, the first Russian bombing raid is reported on Georgian military targets around Gori and Kareli just south
of Tskhinvali; Russian helicopters and aircraft begin to attack Georgian forces in South Ossetia.
Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity and security detail in Java.
13:00 – The Russian Defense Ministry in a statement pledges to “protect Russian citizens” in South Ossetia. Soon after, Russia launches tactical missile strikes against Georgian army command and control center near Borjomi, as well as military targets in Gori and Black Sea port of Poti.
15:00 – A Russian tank and artillery unit breaks through a Georgian enclave and arrives north of Tskhinvali. By then Georgians claim to control “70 percent” of the town and call for a cease-fire. About the same time NATO Secretary General also calls for cease-fire.
15:10 – At a press conference in the Kremlin, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declares that “those who attack Russian citizens [in South Ossetia] will be punished. Russian officials soon brand their military action a “peace-enforcement operation” in Georgia and add that Georgia’s “territorial integrity has suffered a mortal blow,” as far as Tbilisi’s claims on South Ossetia and Abkhazia are concerned.
Georgian forces near Tskhinval. The jeep shown was later captured by an ethnic Chechen unit of the Russian army (see below).
16:00 – Russian artillery fires on Georgian forces in Tskhinvali center forcing them to retreat. The Russian Air Force attacks military targets across Georgia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appears on CNN, denies he launched the war, and calls for U.S. help against Russian attacks.
21:00 – Mr. Saakashvili tells Georgians that their army scored a “complete victory” in South Ossetia, while losing “30” service members; Russian TV channels that report continued fighting across South Ossetia and accuse Georgia of an attempted genocide against Ossetians, are taken off the air in Georgia.
Saturday, August 9
Overnight and throughout the day fighting and shelling takes place throughout South Ossetia, with the Russian army engaging and pushing back Georgian forces north of Tskhinvali and the Russian Air Force attacking military targets from the Black Sea to suburbs of Tbilisi.
Georgia's Czech-made Dana howitzers near Tskhinvali on August 9.
Georgian efforts to push through Tskhinvali to relieve Georgian units surrounded in Tamarasheni-Kurta enclave in the north are stalled by Ossetian forces. U.S. aircraft begin to airlift some 1,800 Georgian soldiers deployed in Iraq back to Tbilisi airport.
Later in the day, Georgians shell a Russian army column as it enters Tskhinvali, wounding the Russian commanding officer, Gen. Anatoly Khrulev, along with several Russian journalists, and destroying two Russian tanks and several armored vehicles.
Russia also confirms losing two aircraft that day, with two more lost in subsequent days, including one reportedly to “friendly fire.”
Georgia is believed to have lost most of its fleet of 12 combat aircraft.
19:00 – Mr. Saakashvili says in a televised address that the Georgian military is “sweeping out gangs, who have re-infiltrated in the north of Tskhinvali” and calls for a cease-fire with Russia. Shortly after, police spokesperson Shota Utiashvili claims that Georgians retain control of Tskhinvali and that Java and the Roki tunnel were the Georgian army’s “next target.”
Sunday, August 10
Overnight, Georgian forces begin to pull out of Tskhinvali. The Russian Air Force continues to bomb military targets throughout Georgia, including a military facility near Tbilisi airport, which causes panic and suspension of all flights into Tbilisi. Foreigners in Tbilisi begin to flee to Yerevan to take flights out. Russia begins naval blockade of Georgia and sinks a Georgian patrol boat.
10:00 – Georgia’s president’s national security advisor Kakha Lomaia says that Georgian forces are “regrouping” south of Tskhinvali. Throughout the day Ossetian and Russian units, including the special forces’ Vostok battalion comprised of ethnic Chechens, clear remaining Georgian units out of Tskhinvali.
In the evening, the Russian Air Force continues to attack targets around Georgia. Russian and Abkhaz forces begin to bombard Georgian positions in Abkhazia’s Kodori gorge.
Monday, August 11
Overnight, the Russian Air Force continues bombing raids across Georgia, including one 5 km from downtown Tbilisi. In the morning, Georgian artillery and, reportedly, one surviving aircraft fire on Tskhinvali.
In late morning, Mr. Saakashvili and visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner arrive in the town of Gori, just south of Tskhinvali, to observe collateral damage sustained from Russian attacks on military targets in the town. Just after Mr. Kouchner departs from Gori, Mr. Saakashvili observes an aircraft in the sky and is shown to be running away and then hurriedly whisked away by security guards in a car convoy.
In the afternoon, Russian and Ossetian forces move out of Tskhinvali and begin to reclaim Ossetian villages to the west of town and capture Georgian positions north, east, and south of Tskhinvali.
Destruction in Tskhinval.
Meanwhile, Russian forces from Abkhazia are accompanied by Georgian police as they begin to destroy military bases in Western Georgia, citing violations of the Abkhazia peace agreements.
Czech-made howitzers abandoned by Georgian army (Aug. 12 photo by Artem Drabkin)
17:00 – British journalists on the Gori-to-Tbilisi road observe the Georgian army retreating in panic toward the capital, leaving behind dozens of tanks, artillery, and other military equipment along with civilians. It is unclear what caused the panic, as Russian forces had not yet approached Gori.
Georgian soldiers fleeing Gori.
Later in the evening, Georgian media cites Mr. Saakashvili as claiming that “Russian tanks have taken positions on approaches to Tbilisi”; the Georgian president goes on CNN to declare that Russian tanks are “surrounding” Tbilisi and “we are ready to defend Tbilisi to the last drop of blood.”
Minutes later, Mr. Saakashvili acknowledges that tanks observed near Tbilisi were those of the retreating Georgian army and not of the Russian army. He promises Tbilisi residents a “12-hour warning” before Russian forces come; this causes panic in Tbilisi. Russians deny they intend to enter Tbilisi.
In late evening and subsequent days, Russian forces begin to come into Gori and other Georgian towns without resistance to take over abandoned military equipment and
destroy military bases. Russians also sink the Georgian navy in the port of Poti and force a Georgian retreat from Abkhazia’s Kodori gorge.
Russian soldiers taking a break near Gori.
At the same time, all sides agree to a cease-fire that necessitates a Russian pullout in exchange for the creation of a “security zone” around South Ossetia and international discussions of South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s status. Russia promises to pull out from Georgian into the “security zone” by August 22.
As of August 19, the Georgian government has confirmed 146 military and 69 civilian deaths, as well as 1,199 military and 270 civilians wounded; 70 persons are reported “missing.” The death toll is expected to rise, since the Georgian army suffered a bulk of casualties in an area now outside its control.
As of August 20, Ossetian officials have confirmed the death of 133 of their residents, both civilians and self-defense fighters. The death toll is expected to rise, but few expect it to reach "more than 2,000 dead” claimed by Ossetian officials at the height of fighting.
Russian forces have confirmed 64 servicem members killed and 323 wounded.
— Compiled by Emil Sanamyan from media sources. All times shown are local Moscow-Ossetia-Georgia time which is eight hours ahead of EST.